Stories of Shame
Shame is a universal experience that can impact our ability to fully engage with the world. It arises when we feel exposed or seen, creating a vulnerable moment where judgment looms, leaving us feeling tainted and unworthy.
In this episode, Dan and Rachael explore some of the characters, themes, and settings that have shaped some of their personal stories of shame. This conversation invites us to explore the complex layers of our own stories of shame, as well as how our shame intersects with other people’s narratives of shame. As you consider the significant impact shame has on your relationships and your sense of self, we hope today’s episode serves as an invitation for greater kindness, blessing, and hope.
Dan: The story of shame. Doesn’t that sound fun and intriguing? And the answer is, oh no it doesn’t. Alright, we’re, we’re going to talk about shame, but what I want to do is to make sure that what you are being invited to hear is that we all struggle with shame, past, present, and likely the future. But what we’re focusing on now is more, we all have a story of shame. And that story, as profound as it is, often limits who, when, where, how and why we engage with the world. Because our story of shame sets up the parameters for a kind of, I never want to go through that again. So let me tell you where all this began. When my wife said, did you call the shop that has our lawnmower? And as soon as she said that, I was like, oh no, I don’t want to mess with this. Because dealing with what I’ll call mechanical matters, especially lawnmowers, for some reason, I have a long history of feeling profoundly incompetent in that realm. And as soon as she said, did you call, I could feel a certain degree of what could be called reflux, irritation, anger. And I responded rather unwell to a simple question. We all have a story of shame and we need to have in one sense a sense of what are the characters, what’s the theme, what’s the setting? Just as we do any kind of story work, we have to do work with regard to the story of shame. Tell me what you’re thinking, dear colleague?
Rachael: Oh gosh. Well, what was coming up was a very recent incident of experiencing shame. And I was thinking about what story is that connected to? And I, yeah, I could go into that story, but I also, it, I think shame often collides… it all, it’s always colliding with other people’s stories of shame. And so sometimes shame feels like a boxing match that you don’t even know you’re in, where someone is responding out of their shame and the stories of shame they hold. And these stories can be deeply personal and also incredibly collective. And so yeah, we were just flying back from Seattle from a work trip in Seattle, and we were getting our luggage at the airport after our red eye. So it’s six in the morning eastern time, three in the morning Pacific time where we just left. We flew with Evelyn, our now eight month old. And I was going to get, I had Evelyn in my arm and I was going to get our luggage, the car seat bag off the thing because Michael was looking for the heavier suitcases. And so I see one that I think is ours, but when a bag is turned over and you can’t see the brand, so I’m going to flip it over to make sure it’s ours. Because by the way, we were flying with nine other families with babies. So I thought I better check and make sure it’s a Kiko car seat bag as I’m going to turn over. A man is like, oh, let me get that for you, but I’m still trying to make sure it’s ours. So I’m trying to find the tag and he’s like, is it yours? Is it yours? He’s getting escalated and I, I’m flustered because I have a plan. He’s disrupting it. I can’t figure out if it’s ours because he’s in my way. And so he just pulls it off the belt and throws it out. And I said, sir, you don’t need to be rude. I didn’t ask for your help. And then he said, well, you should know if it’s your bag, it’s a unique bag. And I said, it’s a car seat bag. And there’s about eight other families on this flight. And then he just walked off and marched out of the room. And of course then I got real mad and I’m cussing and walking over to Michael. But what was so interesting is I felt so much shame. I must be an idiot. Everyone’s watching. But what’s also playing out is this man feels shame because it’s his own shame and this collision. But what happened ended up happening is then I needed to get my anger out. And then I was just saying to Michael, this is what it’s like being a woman in this world. And you’re violated by some jerk who thinks he’s going to save the day when you didn’t even ask for it. Complicates things and then yells at you when his help doesn’t help. So it was a very common experience of being a woman, being perceived as kind of helpless and actually, and then not receiving the help in the way I think the person wanted me to just receive the help. And so then his shame. So it’s just, I think shame is just pretty insidious.
Dan: Oh, good lord. I mean, just even as you share that story I have, you noticed, obviously our listeners can’t see our faces, but I’ve been wanting to turn away from you. I feel both your shame, his shame, my shame, and like a decent human being’s trying just to be of help, yet in his own story of shame, he’s being an idiot. And it’s early morning. Let’s just add that for everyone. And so in the context of trying to engage just a moment that’s pretty complicated for all of us, but with a daughter in your hand, not much sleep. And we can add the reality that everyone who is at that meeting except one got the neurovirus. Our bodies are so susceptible in our own fragility and frailty, but when we’re hit by shame, there is this deep desire to disappear to literally just not exist or to in some sense become 10 times more who we are. And that is that flash of rage, that contempt. So we’re going to build a structure that we’ve done before, but I think it’s important to do again. Yeah, what is shame and how we engage it? So shame is an exposure, it’s always an experience of the eyes, an exposure in the presence of others or in our own sense of being seen by others, even if we’re alone, where we are being judged. So key word is exposure. The next word is judged. And in that judgment, there is something. And again, now I find so many words that come, but let me just underscore, none of them are adequate, but the word foul, disgusting. Revulsive. Undesirable. Ugly. Toxic. There’s just something that you want to turn your eyes, your nose, your face away from. And yet the judgment is, I see you and you are bad. So that sense of shame so often gets contrasted to the concept of guilt. And I just, let me spend a moment on that to say that it’s a fair distinction because those who feel guilt, no, that it’s not the same as shame. So often what’s said is that guilt is I’ve done something bad, meaning I’ve externalized my sense of self in an act. And yet shame is I am bad and I concur. But let me also say I don’t, because in some ways guilt is just another form of self contempt. If we understand shame is the central experience as a fallen human being in a broken world. And you see that particularly in Genesis 2:25, one of the saddest verses literally in the Bible, and they were naked and they knew no shame. So the author of that passage is ultimately saying, if you look through the scope of scripture, this is what the Bible’s going to tell you about shame. So when we talk about guilt, a sense of I’ve done something wrong, frankly, if I can put it this way, I think guilt is easier to feel than shame because with guilt, I’ve done something wrong. There’s always a correction, a kind of, well then don’t do it wrong. Do it right, perform, be in control so you don’t feel guilt. But in one sense, shame as we’ve begun to describe, doesn’t have an antidote, do it better. It’s that I am foul and somehow the consequences of being foul is I will be judged, I will be isolated. And in that alone, nobody can enter my world with me. The effect for most people is that sense of I want to hide my face. And you see that with even young 18-month-old, two year old children who in a moment of feeling shame, literally cover their eyes so that you can’t see them. But in that sense, it is that I don’t want to be, I don’t me, I don’t want you to see me. And even though we have much greater clarity that covering our face will not keep people from seeing us, there is that deep, deep, deep desire to disappear or rage against ourself, guilt or rage against others, which obviously you’re better at in that moment. And I’m better at than our own. Sometimes
Rachael: If someone’s response to their own shame is violence, then yes, I will always rise. No, I will. I’m trying not to. But often I will rise to the occasion when they project their shame onto me. When the shame is just humiliation toward myself, rejection or mockery, then that feeling of just cut a hole the way I feel experience it is if there was a hole in the floor, I would just jump into it and disappear. It’s that feeling, can I just crawl under the ground and disappear right now? I cannot bear this. I cannot bear to be seen, and I cannot bear to feel what I am feeling. It’s unbearable. It does have that unbearable reality.
Dan: Yeah. So when you hear my conversation about guilt and shame, which may be just something of the too academic realm of my own little brain, but where does that take you?
Rachael: No, it doesn’t feel too academic because I actually have heard that that guilt is that distinction between guilt and shame. And I do think it’s a helpful, well, what it brought me is what I often hear in that conversation, the extension of that is that it’s actually helpful to feel guilt, but not helpful to feel shame that guilt can actually be an effective tool of change, which I see your face, our audience can’t see your face. But what it also has me thinking about is, and maybe you could put some language to this because rarely do I hear that conversation held with an understanding of different types of cultures. And I think in the West we do come from a more individualistic culture where guilt and innocence are categories. But could you speak a little bit to some of the spectrum of a more collective culture or just that honor/shame culture. This is something Michael and I talk about a lot coming, him coming from a Taiwanese-American culture, just this difference different ways in which even culturally we understand guilt and shame.
Dan: Absolutely. I mean, the fact is, it is a really helpful, even if it’s a highly generalized reality, that in a more collectivist culture, you’ve got far more commitment to honor and therefore the potential for shame. Whereas in a much more individualistic culture, which is more bound not to honor, but to performance, a kind of success defined often in very economic terms. There you’ve got far more the reality of, in my own individualism, it’s clear that, I’m either a victim of someone and therefore I get to blame, and therefore it’s much more other centered in its judgment. And I think frankly, far more soil for cultural and individual narcissism. So in one sense, what I’m saying is I think the western notion that has spent a profound time, I mean thousands of years attempting to escape shame actually is part of the reality of why there is so much fragility, but also entitlement, so much more commitment to a kind of, you know, hurt me – you are to blame. Again, I’m not talking about just a escaping of the reality of injustice. It’s when you have harmed me, I’m immediately a victim that then gets the right to blame you. Again. Oftentimes that is a reality that needs to be honored, but when it’s within that guilt structure, the assumption is that not only the perpetrator, but all of us can just try better and harder and perform more. Whereas in one sense, a collectivist culture where shame in one sense can’t be resolved without a communal reengagement, that that’s much more true. Meaning I can’t resolve shame. I can’t take it away by doing something better. Now that I have in one sense been exposed, there has to be a sense in which there are cultural ritual, relational structures that invite the person who feels shame back into the larger relationship. So in one sense, I’m hardly saying I think shame is effective, but what I want to underscore is that shame demands a different kind of relational connection than what guilt does. And therefore guilt gives you much more sense of control and power to alter your world. Even though again, anyone who’s felt profound guilt knows it is not an easy experience. But what I’m underscoring is underneath that is the reality that shame is a far more deeper driver of human behavior in terms of harm. But if we engage shame, we have the opportunity to engage something that really does have the potential to restore in a way that mere better performance with regard to the individualistic guilt oriented culture never creates other than a sense of I just got to try harder and therefore leading to even more exhaustion. But at one level, which would you prefer? The desire to disappear and not be visible ever to be seen again or just feel more pressure? Well, for most of us, me particular, I’d rather just feel pressure. I’ll work harder to be restored. But in the long run, it’s escaping the deepest dynamic of what scripture invites us to understand about the human condition. And that is we’re in a war and we have a story of shame. So when I use that word story, I’m curious where that takes you with regard to your story. And you can certainly ask the same.
Rachael: Oh, I mean so many places, right? Because shame is very, I mean, our stories are dynamic. So of course if shame is a, I think weapon of the enemy to keep us fragmented, to keep us turning our face away, not only from others, but especially from God to keep us bound to cursing, which I know we’re going to talk about, that shame in many ways opens the door to profound cursing. Of course it does. Of course it does. Even in the simple stories we’ve brought, you know, can feel it, you can taste it how close it is. So it takes me to, I mean, again, that airport story felt so, I mean, as I was processing with Michael, it just brought up so many stories of being a woman in this world and a woman called to preach and a woman who doesn’t necessarily always fit the kind of fundamentalist, evangelical caricature of a woman, which I just want to say by the way, when people say Proverbs 31 woman, that is a description of wisdom and wisdom was fierce. Wisdom owned a business, wisdom went to the city gates, only the men were allowed. It’s just my little preaching side note, if you’re going to use that one, let just know what you’re actually inviting. So I’m all about being Proverbs 31 woman.
Dan: As long as you understand. Let’s just, if we’re going to take this little detour, then let’s underscore it. What’s being described is Dame wisdom, which means it’s a reflection of everyone who is meant to be wise. However, what’s so glorious is that wisdom is described as a woman, which is so gloriously disruptive in the context of that. Yeah, highly patriarchal world. Yeah.
Rachael: So I think what’s coming up for me is so much of the work there, right? Because that has been a place where it’s been easy for me to both just give my heart over to a kind of violence to survive, or at some point just feel so disgusting that there must be something just inherently wrong with me and disgusting about me. And to get into those stories again, was to have to get into how exposing beauty is, that beauty is actually a very exposing reality and often triggers people shame, but that’s not, if we don’t understand how that works, then from a young age, we don’t have the luxury of making meaning in a way that’s like, oh, here’s these complex things at play, and this person’s response to me, wasn’t it because I was hideous and disgusting? It was because they actually felt exposed by something about me and needed to shut that down. It also brings up, I think for me, just being someone who suffered from anxiety and how physical, embodied and the way that my body manifests anxiety is so visible and often so exposing. So I think that was another place of thinking about the story, my stories of shame and being someone who’s more empathetic and feels other people’s energy that they don’t want to feel. And then sometimes in a very prophetic way, whether I want to or not, is taking that in my body and giving expression to it so that it can come into the metaphysical realm of relationship. And just that kind of exposure is also very shameful when you are the one that can just be the crazy person. Oh, she’s just kind of crazy.
Dan: Well, and here’s part of the dilemma about the reality of our story of shame. When I began thinking about why this is such an important topic, I had to stop and go, what is your first encounter with shame? And I’ve got so many shame stories. I had a friend years ago say, I think your spiritual gift is shame because so many of your stories revolve around feeling and being truly humiliated and incompetent as et cetera. And I started thinking about when was that first moment? And I’m sure there are plenty before then, but it’s second grade. And I could remember coming in. All of a sudden I saw the classroom, the context, it was the day I came into the class just having gotten my first pair of glasses. So the reality that, I’m a second grader, so what six, seven years of age is wearing glasses ought not be anything other than what a gift that we have the ability to address a deficiency and impairment. Something that marks you right there is the issue of any infirmity or perceived or actual becomes something that sets you off from the so-called normal world. So I think for many of us, our first stories of shame are, aren’t even particularly something we’ve done that has exposed us to shame as much as we are being seen as not part of the larger good world. And I had no sense of shame walking. In fact, I remembered my little pair of black glasses, and I remember thinking, I think I feel pretty old. Yeah, this is what adults, I’m almost now an adult, but the laughter of walking in the room and realizing, oh my God. And then the phrase, oh, he, he’s got four eyes. So the idea of being seen, of laughter, the issue of comparison, so almost every comparison I think sets up the high probability of the experience of being seen as distinctive and therefore undesirable. And yet we all want to be distinctive and unique. And yet that bind of, I want to be known, I want to be seen, I do not want to be known and seen, that war is actually a war with shame. And in that, if we can begin to name what are the stories that have created something of this arc, a story arc of walking into a classroom and having this barrage of laughter and then realizing nobody else in the whole class had a pair of glasses. I don’t think I’d ever noted before or after other than adults seemed to wear glasses as the basis of this initial experience. So when you begin to name stories and you begin to get a sense of even the initial first few stories, then the question is, what did your body, what’s the story of your body’s response to some of those early, and maybe not profound compared to later experiences, but at least shaping experiences that set the trajectory for how this story would play out. Do you have a sense of that for yourself?
Rachael: Well, yeah. I mean, as you were talking, a story that came to mind is when I was four, I had mono, I got mono, and I was sick for a while before anyone figured out that that’s what was going on, because I was so young,
Dan: Young! Right!
Rachael: Once we figured out, I had a crush when I was four, and I think we had four year olds would on a playground at recess, maybe give each other a kiss on the cheek, little buddies. But I also was so in love with this little boy who was so kind to me in a way that a four-year-old would be. And I remember after I got diagnosed with my family, joking, it’s a mono’s, a kissing disease. So who have you been kissing? I hadn’t told anyone this. And so feeling like, oh my God, I’m so bad. I’m so disgusting, and I got a disease and from kissing, and I’m just, what I took in that moment and just thinking about the body’s response, it did feel like there’s something wrong with you. There’s something wrong with you. And again, that was connected to other stories playing out in that season of harm that I was experiencing. So there was a deeper story that was it bringing that kind of shame. But I think that that’s, like you’re saying, the story arc, that’s what happens, right? As those webs get formed and therefore these tethers that then feel like they reinforce this experience in our bodies so that the desire to not be in my body, the desire to control my body so that it’s not dangerous and, you know, getting diseases and maybe harming other people. And where this takes me is just thinking about, and again, that did line up with not just my own personal story, but the collective story of being in a female body in this world. And it does make me think about, as you’re talking about any deviation from the so-called norm as we’re in all these conversations of collective experiences of shame that again, might be experienced with a lot of particularity for someone, but just that very sense of existing in a body and with a certain kind of face, a certain skin color, a certain ability or disability, a certain sexuality or way of expressing or being in your body. And I think that it is just so wicked. The way in which shame, it doesn’t just fragment us, but it cut is like item, it dismembers because the profound sense, and we haven’t gotten there yet. And if we don’t want to go there, that’s okay. But it’s just that sense of cursing that comes that we, that’s a way in which it’s something that’s coming against us, but it’s that judgment that you’re speaking of the judgment that we join as a way to protect, if I can join this it, that’s where I feel like in some ways it’s not helpful to say guilt is the thing that we is about behavior. Because I think what happens with the judgment, it is where we make these vows to change our behavior or to hide, right? Because if the shame is coming against something you can’t actually change, then you don’t have a lot of options to monitor behavior, but you do have the option to where and how you’ll be seen.
Dan: Yes. And the face is, shall we say, the ground, the primary ground. It’s not to say that we don’t have shame with regard to our body or particular parts of our body, but where we’re going to feel most profoundly, the presence of shame is in our face. So if we are perceived because of the color of our skin or because of the shape of our face or because of something that others or we might view as an impairment in the case of my glasses, then you can’t hide. You can’t do something to remove your face. So now we’re in this bind of my face is bringing me harm. How will I engage? Now, I might be enraged at the world that’s shaming me, but where will I and how will I engage what seems to be the provocation, the cause of this comparison judgment? And again, such an important word. And that’s the word curse. So we’re actually inviting folks not only to name, to honor, what has been this story of shame, not just true experiences, but what themes, what categories keep coming up again and again so that it becomes as a story is, rather replete with themes that get reenacted again and again. How does that open the door for you to begin to go, how does it shape my body and my image of my body? How does it shape my sense of relationships and even my capacity for relationship with God with others, or even my professional presence? All that we’re ultimately saying, seldom do I see people step back to say, what is my story of shame and how has it in some sense of the word imprisoned me? And in that prison, I couldn’t agree more. It disembodies, it fragments, and we’ve said this in other podcasts, shame itself, the experience is a trauma. So whatever has brought about shame certainly is traumatic, but the experience of shame itself, fragmenting, numbing, isolating, all the realities that we would put words to with regard to trauma is happening in the moment. So even in this conversation, as I talk about past shaming events, even when I heard your story of returning from Seattle, I’m like, oh, part of me just wants to, can we just move on? And that can’t be our response because in doing that, we’re living out the curse that some thing has wanted to remain as kind of a permanent mark on our being. So when you think at least of engaging shame, not that we’re going to provide a quick cure, but when you think about what’s been involved for you even in this discussion as to what begins to lessen the power of shame?
Rachael: Yeah. Again, I do think getting to the stories that it originated where it came, and like you said earlier, it actually has to be done in community. This work because I actually need to bear the blessing, kindness of others and kindness in this place of shame. I mean, this is the core of our work at the Allender Center that we really believe when someone is willing to suffer with you, the trauma of the shame you’ve experienced and can take in the ground that it originated in, can actually enter the story with you as if it’s holy ground, that it’s holy, this is a sacred holy ground, and can actually begin to help you see the bigger picture of the story, especially those young stories and can begin to say, help you make sense of what’s happening here. And then oftentimes, whose shame is really at play because it’s rarely initially your own, it’s usually the projection of other people’s shame and can grieve with you what it’s cost, what it’s harm like, the harm it’s brought, can be righteously, angry on your behalf and can actually help you move toward blessing in the face of cursing. There is something so powerful and unburdening, it is like a loosening, it’s a lifting of the countenance, a restoration of belonging and taking in that you belong. And I think it’s why attempts to mitigate shame by doubling down actually just reinforce that shame again and again and again and again and again. I think about what we were talking about, how often our response to experiences of shame might be violence and or avoidance and disappearance. Any commitment we have, I’ll never feel that shame. No one will ever humiliate me like that. And then we respond in violence and what do we feel? Shame. Shame.
Dan: Yes. No. Again, what you’re saying I think is so right on, let me complicate it. That is the dilemma when we tell a story of shame is that we will never tell the full truth. One, we hardly can bear the full truth in and of ourselves.
Rachael: Absolutely, yeah.
Dan: I’m certainly not going to tell you the full truth until I know how you’re going to respond. And I think one of the most natural responses for most people to any story of shame is that kind of universalization like, oh my gosh, I felt like that. Yeah, I get it. I know how you’re feeling. And there’s something truly profound about being able to be with others who have experienced something of that withering, hallowing, experience. Here’s the dilemma. We offer so often with regard to shame a cure that doesn’t actually deal with the disease. And so the idea that in every story of shame that’s expressed is far worse than what was told. And can we step into, not, again, demanding of people to go from 10% to 100% in a millisecond, but can we indeed hear the parts of the story that imply there’s more to it than what we’ve been given? And allow that story to move not from 10% to a 100%, but 10% to 15% incremental, sensitive, wise movement that allows the heart to be able to say, and in what you suffered, I can’t help but wonder if… You already said this sentence, can I ask you if you were wanting to be able to put a few more words to that? It’s a way of ultimately inviting a person. I can bear your shame with you. I don’t need to avert my eyes, even though of course something in me wishes that we could both disappear in the presence of your shame. But I will stay with you in your shame. Even the shame and the story that you can’t quite fully enter, at least at this moment. So it will sound so counterintuitive. Shame must get worse before there is the relief of, I really do have someone with me who can bear with me the level of heartache and horror that I felt in that moment. That’s going to require a pretty simple sentence. People have heard this perhaps almost add infinitum, perhaps even ad nauseum. And that is you can’t take anyone further than you have chosen to go. And that’s why we want you to bear more access, more understanding, and certainly the key word, more kindness for those young parts of you that experienced shame instead of being able to go, ah, it’s just normal. That’s what kids are like, or that’s what bullies do. Or bad teachers often say that instead of just dismissing the ability to step in and say, what do you, the one who bore all shame, the one who took on all the shame of the world, what do you have to say to me, Jesus in the middle of this desire to rage or disappear? It’s not an antidote, it’s not a quick cure, but it’s an invitation. Will you enter my story in the most raw realm? And how will you God of the universe, address that which makes me feel so susceptible to the evil one’s curse, but to my own curse? When you have taken the curse, what does it mean for me to turn away from the power of that curse to the face that can actually engage with a level of truth and kindness that no other face can offer quite the same.